London versus…

Sunday 12th May 2019

IMG_6658.jpgThe Guardian newspaper ran a high profile series of articles last week comparing London with the rest of England across various quality of life parameters under the theme “London versus…”. “The price of a standard pint of Carling lager in Wetherspoon’s pubs across England varies by more than £2, depending on where you order it.” On obesity: “the people of Barnsley are the country’s heavyweights and residents of the City of London and Richmond upon Thames the lightest”. Not surprisingly the extended feature reported “house prices are the great divider between London and the rest of England – a two-up, two-down near Burnley station sold in January for £39,000, £20,000 less than in 2006. In London, a two-bed flat in Notting Hill sold last summer for £1.24m, up from £570,000 in 2005”.

And so it went on ….. but the biggest feature, including a front page headline, was all about buses and bus fares. “Scandal of ‘unfair’ gulf in bus fares in England” screamed the tabloid style headline in the, ahem, tabloid sized Guardian.

IMG_6657.jpgHelen Pidd, the newspaper’s North of England editor has been digging around and come up with a number of outrageous claims which I’d been expecting one of the newly appointed communication bigwigs at the supposedly resurgent Confederation of Passenger Transport to counter with some factually based rebuffs to the feature’s underlying mantra of ‘public control of a regulated bus network in London = good; privatised deregulated rest of England = chaos and bad’,  but sadly nothing appeared on subsequent days.

IMG_6659.jpgRather, the letters page on Thursday contained more of the same biased viewpoints including a lead letter from Mike Parker, Director General, Nexus (Tyne & Wear Passenger Transport Executive) 1994-2006 lamenting that the practice of turfing passengers from Gateshead heading into Newcastle off buses at Gateshead Interchange and enforcing a ride on the Metro to complete their journey ended at deregulation because the nasty bus companies were free to offer choice and an option of staying on the bus to complete their journey, which unsurprsingly proved quite popular.

Stagecoach Manchester Operations Director, Matt Kitchen provided a sterling response to some of Helen’s claims on Twitter – and even engaged Helen in a reply – but otherwise there’s been a noticeable silence from any high profile personalities in the bus industry and their trade organisation which I thought was supposed to be adopting a much higher public profile following its recent controversial reorganisation.

IMG_E6661.jpgSadly this means some of the Guardian’s reporting will be taken as factual and accurate. So, just for the record here’s a few ripostes from me ……

As a result of her research, Helen Pidd claimed Britain’s “most expensive five-mile journey found was in Hampshire where a ticket from the Broadway, Winchester, to Matterley Farm, Tichbourne costs £5.65”. Not surprisingly Helen compared this “massively unfair” fare to the cost of £1.50 for a similar distance in flat fare London.

First point on this is to observe Stagecoach’s route 64 between Winchester and Alton has an unfortunately coarse fare structure, which Helen has rather taken advantage of to make an extreme point. It’s true the single fare from Winchester for the 4.4 mile (not 5 miles) journey to Tichbourne is £5.65, but that price also applies to every bus stop thereafter right through to and including Alton which is 19 miles from Winchester, but that wouldn’t have made for such a dramatic comparison. As the map below demonstrates you get a bonus of 14.6 free miles added on for your journey at no extra cost by travelling beyond Matterley Farm (shown) all the way to Alton.

Screen Shot 2019-05-12 at 18.10.29.pngFurthermore, I doubt the bus stops at Matterley Farm are particularly busy as aside from the farm to the north, and a smattering of three or four cottages there’s nothing else there, except for the “A31 Burger Van” – marked by Google, to the right.

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It’s also pertinent to point out that the previous stop on route 64 is some considerable distance back towards Winchester, on the outskirts of that city, at the Science Park, where guess what, the single fare is a rather cheaper and a more attractive £2.25 single and £3.70 return – which is much more comparable with a £3 return fare in London.

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Screen Shot 2019-05-12 at 18.26.33.pngA Stagecoach spokesperson was quoted in the Guardian defending its fare “the reality is that boundaries between zones have to be set somewhere”. It was also pointed out that the weekly ticket offers much better value.

A return price for a £5.65 single works out at £7.30 whereas a weekly ticket bought on a smartphone for Stagecoach South’s whole operating area costs £23 (and £13.10 for the Winchester city area including the Science Park) which compares well with London’s weekly cap of £21.20. And as the Stagecoach spokesperson pointed out whereas their route 64 runs subsidy free “the cost of operating London’s bus network is £700m more than the income TfL receives from fares. If London operated like the rest of the UK, where fares reflect the true cost of running services, pricing would be far different.”

It’s important to make this distinction as politicians love jumping on the London bandwagon, not least Greater Manchester’s metro Mayor Andy Burnham who is quoted in the Guardian feature saying outside London bus operators had created a “fragmented, incomplete, overpriced, fragile” network of services that could be withdrawn at any time with no consultation, where single fares in some of the most disadvantaged areas cost up to £4.40. Buses are “fundamentally not run in the public interest”, he said. “How do you best illustrate the transport divide, north v south? It’s as simple as the price of a bus ticket and the price of daily travel. It’s massively unfair. Why did everyone else get bus deregulation and London did not?”

Which led Helen on to her next dramatic claim……. sticking with a Hampshire and Manchester theme, she wrote ……. “in Hampshire 33 bus providers compete, while in Greater Manchester there are 47, including for schools and cross-boundary operators. They have no duty to coordinate with each other and can charge whatever they like.”

The idea that 33 bus companies are competing head to head on Hampshire’s roads is of course complete bunkum. Matt Kitchen rightly publicly challenged Helen on Twitter for the source of her research for the quoted numbers of operators in both areas, pointing out the majority are school journey providers, where in Manchester for example, the operator will simply be contracted to charge the fare set by Transport for Greater Manchester.

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Helen responded she’d seen a list of Hampshire bus companies on a map produced by the County Council but didn’t have it to hand. She’s right about that, Hampshire County Council does indeed produce a wonderful network map which helpfully lists all the operators and the routes they run – in stark contrast to TfL who can’t be bothered to even produce a netork map online let alone in print to show where their bus routes go.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 20.23.43.pngIt’s worth a quick analysis of Hampshire’s listing alongside the list of bus routes operated across the county – this exposes the rather unhelpful fact for Helen that there are actually just seven bus companies running Hampshire’s network of commercial routes across the county. You see Stagecoach and Go-Ahead both own five of the companies listed individually (Stagecoach has Portsmouth; South Downs; Hampshire; Hants & Surrey; Swindon)) (Go-Ahead has Bluestar, Damory Coaches; More; Salisbury Reds; Unilink) and Reading Buses has, or about to have, three (Reading Buses, Newbury & District and ‘soon to be’ Courtney Buses); which with First Bus, Xelabus and Wheelers Travel make up the six main companies with the seventh bring Bournemouth based Yellow Buses who reach the western corner of Hampshire with their hourly route to New Milton. The other 27 companies listed comprise seven Community Transport operators, four coach companies, three taxi companies all of which operate a handful, if that, of infrequent tendered rural routes (some just one return journey in a week) and the remaining three operators in the list of 34 don’t currently run a bus route. Hardly the hot bed of bus competition offering “fragmented and fragile” bus routes Helen and Andy Burnham would have you believe. In fact, Hampshire has a tidy and attractive network of bus routes which is well used, and its tendered routes were overseen until his recent retirement by the hugely experienced and much respected Peter Shelley.

A couple of other points from Helen’s feature which could have done with a little more in depth research:

She stated “anyone can apply to set up a bus company in most of England. It only requires giving the local authority £60 and 28 days’ notice before applying to the traffic commissioner which regulates and licences buses.” Looks like she overlooked the small matter of obtaining a Certificate of Professional Competence and the rather hefty financial requirement to provide the necessary financial backing running into at least five figures to satisfy the Traffic Commissioner.

The feature wasn’t all bad news for deregulated buses though……

“So is everything better with buses in London?” it asked.

“Not everything. The quality of some services outside the capital exceed those in London: some operator’s offer free Wi-fi, better seats and charging points; and some routes can work out better value per mile.”

That’s good to see; it’s a shame this point didn’t feature more extensively – perhaps with an illustration of one of Stagecoach’s swish new double decks introduced in November 2017 on the subsidy-free route 64.

IMG_7748.jpgIt’s also a shame that instead of quoting historic passenger journeys: “London experienced years of growth from the late 1990s to 2014, while the number of journeys elsewhere slowly fell across the same period, with a sharper decline since the start of the decade”, a more up to date assessment of the situation since 2014 wasn’t included when the wheels have well and truly come off London’s growth as bus frequencies are now being continually cut in a desperate bid to square the financial circle of frozen fares, falling passenger numbers, increased journey times and less buses. Not a happy situation. “London versus” indeed.

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Roger French

6 thoughts on “London versus…

  1. I would say that there are actually eight bus operators in Hampshire. Southbourne Buses (a reincarnation of Gardbus which finished a few years ago) are a proper bus operator running a normal frequent bus route (C1) every 30 minutes on six days a week for ordinary passengers using ordinary full size buses (Plaxton Primo and Optare Solo and Dennia Dart). Their ordinary route (C1) is entirely in Dorset but they run a school route (S38) in to Hampshire as well. But because they run an ordinary route i think they should be included. They are not a community transport operator or solely a school operator. So i think that it should really be eight bus operators in total.

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  2. Mr French I have the greatest respect for you as a progressive bus manager achieving a great deal in Brighton. And your talents must have been well supported by your owning company in the north east, I think. But on deregulation you are wrong. Living in London I have a frequent, integrated public transport system. Can you imagine the state of London buses if deregulation had occurred here. It didn’t because London was about the last place in the nation with substantial middle class bus ridership and the chaos that would have happened would have brought down Thatcher earlier than in fact happened. Whenever I travel outside London I’m appalled by what in most cases is the fragmented, uncoordinated, uninformed, poorly tended for and basic level of service that I find. It’s embarrassing especially if you compare it with similar sized cities in Europe for example. Take Rhine-Ruhr for the West Midlands, Lyon for Manchester, Hamburg for Merseyside – a regulated system compared to uncontrolled chaos and it’s no contest. And yes it does take public money. Yet bus support is peanuts compared to the billions the railways get.

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  3. Having Driven in London with London Buses for 26 Years, I joined in 1989 when deregulation had just came about and Buses went from being London Transport to London Buses. I use to sit in the canteen and hear stories of employee
    pre-conditions before privatisation. I envied what I could have earned with better T&C’s had I joined earlier. Over the next 10 years all I experienced was a downward spiral with regards to my Job, T&C’s and the changes that were implemented within the Industry. At one company, Westlink Buses, we were owned and bought five times over a six year period, firstly by a Management buy out and then by various major Bus Operators.
    My Pension suffered stagnation and even that wasn’t immune to being tampered with by Senior Management who were able to, ‘Dip into it !’, apparently for the benefit of the Company, if funds were short. After the Robert Maxwell business, I thankfully became a Trustee of the Company Pension Scheme and was able to use my position to block what I considered a down right cavalier attitude by some Company Directors towards those Pension funds who truly believed it was all their money to do with how they saw fit.
    I and my colleagues experienced low wage growth and much poorer T&C’s. In some instances we actually took a pay cut.
    Garage Canteens disappeared, Griffin Catering Services had turned into Compass Services and they didn’t last much longer. Meal relief ended up being taken on the high street in Cafes or even on the Bus. My very first Garage ended up being demolished, Norbiton, Kingston-Upon-Thames. This was a purpose built Bus Garage. They said because of that it could not and would not be demolished, Gone … Older Buses came into being. Some companies would Tender with the provision of new buses, but we began to experience Vehicle Variations and this did lead to pedal confusion issues and no doubt some, ( Power Surge ) incidents. It may even have contributed to more road traffic collisions due to differing vehicle controls ? I do know that Garage Bus Engineers hated the varying vehicle provision as their job became even more complex.
    It was all rather a worrying time. Vehicle Operators could have the colour of their choice showing on the vehicle, but the front had to be Red, crazy …. Buses once stored in large purpose built depots began standing outside in the great outdoors in large yards on industrial sites. Winter was an awful time, especially if it was older buses like the Leyland Titan, trying to de-ice windscreens, doors not opening because water had frozen them shut and heating being nonexistent. I recall driving a Leyland National Single on the 216 Route from Kingston-Upon-Thames to Staines that we’re notorious for no heating, wearing long johns under a mish-mash of Uniform, thick hiking socks, large warm coat, gloves, woolly hat with ear warmers, scarf and a car rug blanket over my lap. This was, thankfully, during mild winters and I dread to think what difficulties a Harsh Winter would have caused. We worried as staff if a Tender would be renewed and feared either job loss or replacement. Some Bus Companies were better employers than others, but Continuity had certainly disappeared. Then there was that famous news paper article regards Bus Deregulation and how this affected a town in South Wales 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿, Merthyr Tydfil, (Used as an example by the Press) it showed how many services went through the towns Bus Station and it was a ridiculous amount. Had London gone the same way as the rest of the UK, chaos would definitely have ensued, at least we agree on that fact. Though the Tendering Process is and was by no means perfect, it seemed the only practical solution. There is no doubt that Bus Drivers Pay, T&C’s suffered and this in part helped a Company when they Tendered for a Route. Ken Livingstone was the Bus Drivers Friend when he made sure that Bus Operators in London paid us more by incorporating a London Allowance Payment. Khan it seems has gone further in aiding Bus Driving Staff by ensuring that terms of service are now fully recognised by a Bus Operator when they win a Tender from another Bus Company and Staff Transfer with the Route.
    I am truly thankful that at least some semblance of organisation did stay within the London Bus Network, though by no means perfect, it was a far better option than a total free for all. Had that happened then I think I would have opted for a different working career. I do recall a trip home to Hereford and seeing a huge variation of vehicles in the Bus Station, predominantly Coaches from local firms. The difference was very obvious and after talking to a driver on his tea break I was glad that London has not gone the total, ‘ Free for All ‘.

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